BUKIT BATOK: LITTLE GUILIN

Shining sword in hand, defying the laws of gravity, the swashbuckling hero takes a leap, and lands right in front of the fleeing villain. They engage in an enthralling fight atop craggy cliffs. The same hero, face now alight with tender emotions, leans intimately toward his love. Witnessing the burgeoning romance is a languid lake, twinkling in the rays of a setting sun.

If you look closely at the locally shot Mandarin period dramas produced by Mediacorp in its former incarnations (Singapore Broadcasting Corporation, Television Corporation of Singapore), you might notice the same aerial perspectives and green landscapes. Low green hills have the tendency to look similar, but surely that is the same granite block you saw in the last period drama!

In a land-scarce and urbanizing Singapore, producers must have been very glad for Little Guilin, without which their swordfighting and romance scenes would have lost much panache.

Despite its fame—my parents mentioned it often enough when I was growing up—I had never been to Little Guilin. It was simply too far away. I might never have gone too, if not for its proximity to a driving school, at which I was taking lessons. Passing by the signage several times, I decided to take a look at the erstwhile “famous” park.

The official name for Little Guilin is the more prosaic Bukit Batok Town Park. Before it was Little Guilin, it was the Gammon Granite Quarry (in fact, the name still sticks in various meteorological websites). Located in Bukit Batok, which means “Coughing Hill” in Malay and refers to the blasting sounds that used to result from quarrying activities in the area, the granite extracted from the site was presumably used for the budding nation’s building developments in the early years.

It was almost not to be. In 1984, the plan was to fill up the by-then disused quarry and build a road across it. As fate would have it, the authorities announced instead, in 1986, a $3 million plan to develop the site into a town park.

I wonder what had intervened for Little Guilin back then.

Prior to 1965, the face of Singapore was that of a rapidly-industrializing nation, with large swathes of tropical forest rapidly giving way to concrete, built-up landscapes. While the 1958 Master Plan recognised the need for green spaces, the government was too preoccupied with chronic housing and economic issues to do anything about “greening”, except put it on the backburner. Housing estates developed in the 50s and early 60s thus contained little greenery. It was only from the mid-60s, when significant achievements had been had with bread and butter issues, that the government could focus on enhancing the people’s quality of life. The “Garden City” concept came into existence in May 1967; and the 1975 Master Plan made statutory provisions for green spaces in land use.

It was against this backdrop that the then new town of Bukit Batok was developing. Like other residential estates built around that time, Bukit Batok was to have a town park, with the twin purposes of constituting a “green lung” for the otherwise built-up area, as well as, providing a recreational platform for those living nearby.  

Perhaps then, the arresting sight of the quarry’s granite outcrops and its resident biodiversity had saved it, practically shouting out its potential to house a park. Fuelled by the desires of the then governmental leaders to “bring the joy of living to everyone in a middle-class Singapore”, to satisfy Singaporeans’ aspirations toward being a more gracious society, the raw and rugged Gammon Quarry was thus transformed into the scenic Little Guilin, nicknamed as such for its apparent aesthetic similarity to the famed Guilin in China (rather strange as the latter is of limestone and presents quite differently in form).

It was a case of being the right place, at the right time.

The air was fresh just after a downpour, and I found the path that was to lead me to my destination. Winding up and then downward, views of the structures of a stadium and housing blocks gave way to tall trees; the concrete broke out against a carpet of lush emerald. Here and there, granite mounds peeked through the grass, providing visual counterpoints to the surrounding greenery.

Walking on, I saw, first the lake, then the cliffs. Trilling birdsong filled my ears.

Residents had seemed happy with the new addition to the town. Little Guilin soon became a favourite spot of shutterbugs, out to capture on film sights one would be hard-pressed to find elsewhere in Singapore. Teachers brought their students to gaze upon the cliffs – hoping to inspire the little minds to poetry and art. The park was featured in countless pre-bridal shots, giving rise to the quip that “marriages are made, not in heaven, but in Little Guilin.” Amateur anglers were also attracted by the vibrant pond life—small prawns, tiger barbs, snakehead fish, Japanese fish, even the occasional arowana!

Cultural bodies, too, capitalized on the unique landscape in Little Guilin, using it as an outdoor stage and theatre to hold concerts and performances of an oriental slant—Chinese opera and Chinese orchestral music. These seemed well-received, with a reported 2000 people once crowding the grounds for a Chinese operatic performance based on “The Water Margin” (水浒传).

The news media was soon quoting residents proudly citing Little Guilin as a unique feature of Bukit Batok, lending a distinctive identity to the area. Those in other towns wanted their own Little Guilins too, something to make their estate special.

Despite the nearby roads and housing blocks, Little Guilin today retains a secluded air—it felt almost secret. Perhaps this was because of a lack of interest and visitation: there was hardly anyone else around. As I walked around the park, I saw only a to-be-wed couple with their wedding photographer—going against the grain of the seeming preference for local-urban-styled or overseas-nature shoots these days. Later, two wiry old men ambled past me as I picked my way delicately over the manicured slopes and rocks.

I edged nearer to see the lake that was purported by the Housing and Development Board to exhibit “shifting lights and sparkle”; the waters looked rather murky. As I contemplated the life and times of the quarry-turned-popular scenic park-turned-quiet greenery, an empty plastic bottle bobbed by.

With higher human traffic and relative popularity of Little Guilin in the late 80s and 90s, came the attendant problems. Apart from paintings and poetry, Little Guilin inspired art of an alternative bent—graffiti. The culprits were never caught, causing much inconvenience to park cleaners, who had to scramble precariously over rocks to take paint off. The long-suffering cleaners also had to contend with litterbugs, and in 1991, Little Guilin was shamed when a Member of Parliament named it the dirtiest place in Singapore.

While the most notorious delinquent hangout in the 80s was Far East Plaza (the Far East Kids!), Little Guilin had its fair share of young troublemakers who preferred the call of nature to the urbanity of malls. Among other activities, these youths glue-sniffed—acts of mind-bending pleasure that led variously to a young man who stripped naked and then attempted to escape from police (there to arrest him for the stripping) by swimming in the lake for two straight hours; and in another unfortunate case, to the death of a boy who took a dive when on a glue-induced high.

On another occasion, a 23-year-old man was so excited by the beauty of a 13-year-old girl, innocently chatting to her friend nearby, that he exposed himself indecently to her. He subsequently pleaded for leniency on the grounds that the deed was done “on the spur of the moment”. I could not help but wonder, half-amused, at the role the atmospheric surroundings had played in this amorous crime.

While Bedok Reservoir was in the news the last couple of years with regards to deaths and drownings occurring there, this dubious honour was Little Guilin’s a decade ago. People had fallen from the cliffs, to their deaths. Rather poignantly, I came across an old news report of the apparent suicide of an old lady. I imagine her, all dressed up in her cheongsam, biding the world goodbye as she took her slippers off by the lake.

Standing by the water and looking around, what was once filled with hustle and bustle seems to me now rather forgotten. Besides being designated a Nature Area in the 2003 Master Plan, there appears to be little mention of further plans to develop Little Guilin. By and large, it seems to have dropped out of the public eye.

Many in Singapore have inched past the middle-class on the socio-economic stratum. Quiet aspirations toward a gracious lifestyle have given way to a clamour for more exciting, more varied, more sophisticated recreations.

In the last five years, spanking new malls have mushroomed all over the island, bringing in fresh brands to the local retail scene. Our calendars are filled to bursting with cultural and lifestyle events, catering to the public’s increasingly eclectic tastes.

The new-fangledness extends to the arena of parks and nature reserves. The 1967 concept of the Garden City has been taken a step further, culminating in the vision of a “City in the Garden”. Under this ambitious plan, one sees exciting new developments, the crown jewel being the 101-hectare Gardens by the Bay, constructed to the tune of $1 billion dollars. The Gardens allows visitors to traverse carefully-curated greenhouses to view plants from almost every continent; it also enables a glimpse through time at the evolution of plant life on earth. The super trees illustrate how technology and nature can be symbiotic. 

In an age where time is precious little, where the candle is sometimes made to burn at both ends, it is not sufficient for recreational spots to be just, well, recreational. It is best if relaxation can be coupled with entertainment and education. To quote the CEO of Gardens by the Bay, Dr Kiat W. Tan, “The determinedly populist stance of the Gardens by the Bay fronts a decidedly serious agenda touching upon social, cultural, environmental, and ultimately educational motives.”

This is not only for national parks aiming at world-class standards. In the Singapore heartlands as well, parks and green spaces seek to be multi-purpose. At the Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park, which won “Design of the Year” in the 2012 President’s Design Award, park-goers are encouraged to interact meaningfully with a meandering waterway that once ran in a concrete canal; one can also view a demonstration of how specially selected wetlands plants help cleanse and filter water, chemical-free. The North Eastern Riverine Loop, stretching past coastlines, wetlands, and reservoirs, provides a wide variety of settings in which one can cycle, fly a kite, or simply read about surrounding wildlife on heritage panels erected onsite. 

In contrast to both the spectacle of the Gardens by the Bay and the more community-friendly neighbourhood parks, Little Guilin must seem to have little to offer to the modern Singaporean. Its very name, once evoking desirable locales, now seems to allude to petty ambitions. Its sights, once unique and exotic, must seem unimpressive to eyes weaned on more global fare. Unlaid with nature trails showcasing resident flora and fauna; un-infiltrated with cafes and restaurants nestling in greenery; possessing a less-than-ideal terrain for jogging or cycling; it is no wonder the common refrain that there is “nothing much to do” at Little Guilin.

Have we grown more sophisticated as a populace, or rather more unimaginative, that we are find pressed to enjoy a place for what it is, without the frills and fancies of programmed recreation and upgraded infrastructure? Perhaps, in a nation that is short on space and time, it is inevitable that we get fed on the mantra that we should – and come to expect to – relaxation/education/entertainment all at the same time.

It is almost time to go. As I get up from my seat on the low wall that surrounds the lake, I ponder the future of Little Guilin. It has seen many years now. Along the way, many have discovered it, and forgotten it. Leave cultural significance and national agenda to the illustrious Gardens, to the Fort Cannings of Singapore! With the thousands of personal, intimate, memories layered upon its nooks and crannies, this little spot in the west has grown into its own skin. It lies quite forgotten, a passé but graceful anomaly—for now—to the constant progress of land-scarce Singapore.

Images & Words Lim Yan Hong

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